A package containing two of LK Chen’s fine historical reproductions recently arrived at my door. So, of course, I find myself thinking about the importance of “regionalism” within martial arts studies.  The connection between the two topics may not seem obvious. Yet in truth you cannot understand much about the evolution of historical Chinese weapons in the 16th and 17th centuries without a keen appreciation of the forces or regionalism.  Nor is it possible to grasp much of what is happening in Asian Studies without an appreciation for a more modern manifestation of the same forces. Yet for all of the lip service that the forces of regionalism and globalization receive in conference titles and calls for papers, historical discussions of the Asian martial arts have proved surprisingly resistant to these larger conceptual trends.  Perhaps taking a closer look at a specific weapon will illustrate why this resistance within the discussion of martial arts can be so problematic.

Yet first, what exactly appeared on my porch?  I arrived home to discover two dao, both of which were very nice historical reproductions of pieces from Peter Dekker’s collection. The originals that these were based on dated to the final decades of the Ming dynasty. One was the spectacular Yanling Dao, a striking example of a “Goose Quill” type saber that was almost a signature of weapon of the Manchu forces that would go on to overrun China. This saber is, in a word, a spectacular piece of craftsmanship that has already received several reviews and lots of commentary on YouTube and other social media platforms.

When given an opportunity to write my own review of this piece I jumped at the opportunity but also decided to put down some of my own money and order a second saber from about the same period which has received a much less attention.  It is the Woyao Dao, which translates to something like “Japanese Style Waist Saber.” This is a longer and heavier weapon of a type that was very popular with Ming soldiers in the closing days of the dynasty, but it would remain a somewhat standard sidearm throughout the early Qing in the Green Standard army.  Initially I was struck with the weapon’s elegant lines and thought that it would be great fun to do a comparative review with the Yanling Dao, given the physical differences between these two contemporaries and their complex historical legacies.

And I may still do something like that later on.  But the more I thought about this plan, the more I decided that the Woyao Dao presents its owns challenges as a historical project that need to be unpacked precisely because they bear on important issues in Martial Arts Studies.  As such I think LK Chen will have to wait a little longer for the Yanling Dao review I initially promised him as we take a detour into a different aspect of Ming martial culture.

Ming Painting of mounted soldiers carrying weapons similar to the Woyao Dao.

The Glamor of the Katana

“Soft power” is a concept within the field of political science most closely associated with the writings of Joseph Nye.  One might think of it as the strength of cross-cultural desire that the products of certain nations or states naturally generate.  Cultural desirability, while not as directly fungible as military might or economic wealth, can be an important commodity within the realm of international politics.  Nor does it take savvy diplomates and statemen long to figure out how to transform it into one of these other types of national power.

While most discussions of this concept are relatively recent, the concept itself certainly seems to be manifest throughout political history. When great powers rise it is not unusual for other states to attempt to emulate their forms of administration or governance in an attempt to capture some of that same success.  For instance, the Japanese often looked to China for not just trade and technological innovations, but also better forms of political administration or new ideas about governance.  Modern martial artists tend to forget that the main ideology that most of the Samurai actually studied and used in their day-to-day work was Confucianism.  

Yet soft power is an interesting concept precisely because it is rarely a zero-sum game. The very nature of cross-cultural desire dictates this. While the Ming dynasty tended to function as the economic and ideological center that many states in Asian focused on, it, in turn, looked for cultural inspiration in the exotic goods and practices that it encountered all round.  While successive Ming Emperors, concerned with the destabilizing potential of international exchange, would do their very best to limit trade, the truth was that China was enmeshed in a global network providing goods which its elites had determined that they simply could not live without.

One might assume that Japan’s export of raw copper would have dominated its cultural image in late imperial China.  After all, this was a vital resource that was imported to produce the bronze coinage that was then shipped all over Asia as part of the region’s robust trade.  Japan actually import huge numbers of Chinese bronze coins which functioned as a major source of liquidity for their own economy. Yet it was actually Japanese swords, and martial culture, that captured the imagination of multiple generations of Chinese elites. China’s complex relationship with Japanese martial arts did not start in the Republic era.  Indeed, it was one of the fundamental forces that shaped the emergence and early codification of the Chinese arts during the late Ming dynasty.  Put slightly differently, Chinese and Japanese martial culture affected each other’s development precisely because they were both emmeshed in a larger network of economic exchange and political competition.

It is probably not a coincidence that these trends reached a very visible zenith during the Ming dynasty. In the earlier Sui and Tang the Japanese had imported certain basic sword making technologies from the Chinese (along with a number of finished weapons) which then took on a distinct local character. Japan’s robustly feudal nature allowed for greater social status and wealth to accrue within its military classes than was the cases in bureaucratic imperial China.  Still, the general disorder that characterized life during the Ming Dynasty, an era when banditry was an issue even in relatively peaceful years, began to erode the ideological walls separating civil and military virtues.  Increasingly China’s landed gentry took an interest in military matters, both to preserve their states and the nation as a whole.  All of this led to a well-documented revival of the notion of “scholar warriors” and a general consensus that something was needed to strengthen society as a whole.  Given this alignment of social forces, itis not a surprise that martial arts gained popularity and were increasingly codified in the late Ming.

One of the persistent patterns in Chinese discourse on this subject is to identify the internal domestic realm as one characterized by “civil” values, while the outside fringes of the empire were the dangerous and exotic lands that gave rise of “military” genius. The pattern is remarkably stable over time.  During the Warring States period and early Han, martial genius (indeed, even the very notion of swordsmanship) was something that was seen as emerging from the wild and militant cultures that existed in the far the south, including (but not limited to) the culturally exotic kingdom of Chu. In later eras military inspiration would come from the innovations in warfare made by many groups of people to the North and West.  Yet during the Ming, even prior to the piracy crisis, Chinese elites were starting to look to Japan as a source of poetic martial inspiration.

The existing corpus of Ming poetry provides ample evidence that Japanese swords were highly sought after by even civilian collectors and gentlemen. Much has been written about the quality of these blades. Yet in China they were appreciated just as much for the luxury of their mountings.  Hundreds of thousands of other swords found their way into the hands to Imperial government, and very likely the military, through the highly regulated tribute system. Japanese trade delegations would bring tens of thousands of swords with them, even though official trade regulations limited the number of swords that tribute missions were supposed to provide.  Initially lavishly finished Japanese swords were seen as luxury items.  Yet when Japanese merchants realized how much they could be sold for, they began to import many times the desired limit.  In an attempt to dissuade them, the Chinese government began to cut the price that they were willing to pay for imported blades.  Yet the Japanese responded by exporting even larger numbers of more utilitarian, mass produced weapons, to maintain their profit margins (necessary to pay export taxes to the Japanese government).  Chad Eisner has recently published a very nice blog post on the katana trade at the Fighting Words blog which also lists a number of sources that readers will find helpful if they wish to dig into this a little deeper.

Nor was this martial exchange always one-sided.  While Chinese collectors obsessed over Japanese swords, the Japanese warriors who accompanied these trading expeditions were very interested in learning as much as they could of Chinese spear and pole-arm techniques. In their discussion of the Japanese yari Roald and Patricia Knutsen note that it had long been the spear, not the sword, that dominated Japanese battlefields, and the Bushi class was eager study the latest innovations and training methods coming out of China.

As a result of this martial exchange, the growing cache of Japanese blades was not limited to a handful of elite families and afficionados.  Hundreds of thousands of more utilitarian swords were mounted in ways that they could be carried by Chinese soldiers and were likely issued to the imperial guard in and around the capital.  From there Chinese smiths began to get in on the trend.  While imperial regulations closely dictated how blades could be mounted, they were largely silent on the style of the blade itself. Increasingly swords were commissioned for private purchase in “the Japanese style.”

Such weapons typically had a profile that more closely resembled a Japanese katana of the period that other types of Chinese swords.  Usually this meant giving the sword the sort of rigid, five-sided, cross section that had previously been seen on Tang dao, but had since become rare in Chinese weapons.  Japanese smiths had developed this basic shape into a potent means of giving their swords strength and rigidity.  Nevertheless, these swords were typically mounted with the sorts of one-handed hilts that were seen on period peidao.  It was still anticipated that they would function primarily as a reserve weapon or to be used with a shield.

The Original Woyao Dao, in Mounts by Philip Tom and Vince Evans, from the Collection of Peter Dekker.
Note that while the profile of the blade has been influenced by the Japanese sword design, its curvature is more typical of period Ming dao.
A detailed view of the tip.

There were other differences as well.  Chinese produced swords tended to lack the complex geometric tips that helped to define Japanese weapons. And while both types of swords used a mixture of high and low carbon steel in an attempt to combine cutting potential with toughness and flexibility, they did so differently.  In Japan a “san mai” (three layer) blade was produced by sandwiching a core of low carbon steel in a sheath of higher carbon steel.  This ensured that the blade could take a razor edge, yet the spine of the weapon would remain tough and relatively soft.  Chinese smiths, on the other hand, placed their hardened steel in the center of the blade, protecting it with slabs of lower carbon metal on either side.  The practical effect of both strategies was similar, but because Chinese blades were more likely to hide the high carbon core, even differentially heat-treated blades did not develop the same sort of hamon that were so prized by sword aficionados in both Japan and China.

The outbreak of the Japanese piracy crisis in Southern and Central coastal China altered the sword trade.  Japanese katana were still revered, but they were also feared as somehow embodying the essential mismatch in cultural values that led the Ming military to one defeat in close quarters combat after another in the early stages of this conflict. No less an authority than General Qi Jiguang identified the superiority of Japanese weapons, as well as the greater skill of the pirates, as one of the reasons for their repeated victories.

In practical terms, this was not just a matter of swords.  The pirates were armed with more guns, and firearms of higher quality, than their Imperial Chinese counterpart’s courtesy of the Portuguese.  Yet it was the superiority of these Japanese style swords that that came to symbolize the situation and local commanders quickly determined that their forces, in addition to be drilled in more effective martial arts, needed to be armed with these superior weapons.  For this reason, this styles dao is now often know as the Qijiadao or “Qi clan saber.” That is how Peter Dekker labeled the original that LK Chen reproduced.  But as we have now demonstrated, while Qi did much to promote this type of weapon, it was already in wide circulation prior to advent of hostilities in the south.

From a scholarly point of the view the critical thing to take away from all of this is that one cannot really understand the late Ming piracy crisis by examining it from only one perspective. A granular examination of actual incidents quickly reveals that most of the “Japanese pirates” carrying “Japanese swords” were actually Chinese sailors, merchants and local clans whose livelihoods had been imperiled by the Ming’s disruption of the vital triangular trade linking costal China to Japan and South East Asia.  Likewise, one cannot really understand why the Japanese Sea Lords would be so interested in exporting hundreds of thousands of swords to China, and then supporting nasty guerilla campaigns, without knowing something about the vital importance of Chinese bronze coinage to the Japanese economy and the political and economic dangers that would arise from a sudden trade imbalance. If the writings of figures like Qi Jiguang are our only window onto this we will miss more than we see precisely because the conflict was a complex regional event, rather than being strictly national in character.

To combat this sort of bias graduate students in history are now told that they must be prepared to master several archaic languages rather than only one, and they need to be prepared to do archival research in two or three countries  The costs of such a research strategy are obvious, but so are the benefits when one scholar can simultaneously bring multiple perspectives to a complex problem.  Indeed, regionally focused research methods have become the industry standard in many parts of Asian Studies.

The same cannot be said of Martial Arts Studies. Most historical studies still take nationally focused questions as their starting point and serious enquiry quite literally stops at the waters edge. Much of the work on Japanese, Chinese or Korean martial arts history is still being produced in Japanese, Chinese and Korean history departments and reflects a narrow and inward looking bias.  Martial Arts Studies, as a field, has been very sensitive to the importance of globalization and regional identities and pressures.  Yet that same emphasis, seen in many of our contemporary studies, has yet to fully make its way into more solidly historical works.

The Woyao Dao illustrates what we are likely missing.  This weapon, once one of the most commonly encountered expressions of Chinese martial culture, only exists because of hundreds of years of mercantile, cultural and martial exchange between these two powers.  And while most accounts tend to focus only on the period of Piracy Crisis itself, the vast majority of this exchange, going all the way back to the Sui dynasty, was entirely peaceful and motivated by various types of economic, cultural and political desire.  Neither the Japanese Katana nor the Ming Peidao, two weapons that might look very different at first glance, emerged from a vacuum. What the Woyao Dao strongly suggests is that if we only appreciate one of these blades, we in fact understand neither. 

Reviewing the Woyao Dao

All of which brings us to a review of LK Chen’s most recent historical recreation.  In this case he worked closely with Peter Dekker and Phillip Tom, two renown experts of Chinese weapons, to recreate a surviving weapon from the end of the Ming dynasty, or possibly the opening years of the Qing.  The blade that he chose to replicate is the definition of elegance.  Its long lines and subtly curves are sure to catch the eye.  Still, I would be somewhat hesitant to call this project a pure reproduction.  Recreation might be a better term here.  

Like many other antique Chinese swords this one had been stripped of its fittings at some point, possibly in preparation for being melted down during the Cultural Revolution.  Fortunately, that never happened.  But the current fittings on this sword are the result of a collaboration between Philip Tom and the sword smith Vince Evans.  While they are very faithful to the period, we are not 100% percent sure how this sword was mounted back in the 17th century as none of that furniture survives. While LK Chen took Philip Tom’s designs as his inspiration, sharp eyed observes will note that his mounts are actually a little different places.  For instance, the bands around the scabbard lack the incised lines seen on the “original.”  Further, the dish shaped hand guard has more of an oval rather than a purely round profile.  And while we do not have precise measurements of the Deker’s sword, I suspect that the hilt of LK Chen’s reproduction might be half an inch longer.  

Likewise, the blade that inspired this recreation has been polished and sharpened many times and seems to have lost some of its mass. Its spine seems a bit shallow or uneven in places.  Rather than reproducing the dao at it exists now, LK Chen has attempted to restore the blades original profile and weight. And while the mounting clearly follows the design choices made by Tom and Evans, it is ultimately LK Chen’s own work.  This project is perhaps best understood as an attempt to recreate how an existing historic blade would have appeared (and handled) in the type of Fangsi, or “square style” mounts, that were typically seen on military dao at the end of the Ming.

Such equivocation aside, LK Chen has produced a remarkably faithful copy of an existing 16th century dao in comfortable, high quality, fittings but with all of the advantages of modern metallurgy.  When purchasing this sword I decided to go with the pattern welded 1060 and T8 tool steel combination which LK Chen has used on a number of his swords.  While not entirely historical, it does a decent job of mimicking the complex structures that you see in the softer steel plates covering the high carbon cores of period blades.  If one is more concerned with the blade’s resilience and cutting practice, it can also be had (for slightly less money) is a spring steel very similar to 5160.  The blade I received has been lightly etched yielding a tasteful and understated pattern.  Unfortunately, this sword is not currently available in the traditional 3 plate construction method, though its interesting to note that this is now an option when purchasing the Yangling Dao.  Perhaps it is something we will see more of in the future.

As always LK Chen’s blades are beautifully executed and great value for the money. My example was very close to the original in all of the important respects.  Its total length was 94.6 cm with a blade length of 77.4 cm or 30.5 inches.  The total length of the hilt was 17.8 cm (7 inches) from the bottom of the handguard to the end of pommel.  The grip section itself was a bit longer than expected at 5 and ¾ inches. This was secured both by peening at the pommel and the insertion of a copper pin through the wood scales that also acts as a lanyard hole.

Given the forgoing discussion, it is interesting to note that the blade is somewhat longer than most peidao of the period, and indeed most of the katana that inspired the creation of the Woyao Dao.  In fact, 30.5 inches would have been an average length of a tachi of the period, and thousands of these were also imported to China during the Ming.  As such, I have wondered whether they may have played a role in inspiring this particular design.  That said, the curvature of this blade resembles a Ming peidao more than a Japanese tachi being relatively straight at the base and middle of the blade before sweeping up as it moves closer to the tip.

The blade has the five-sided rigid cross-section that one would expect on a Woyao Dao of this period.  I suspect that the wide medial ridges might act as cut inhibitors compared to the broad cutting surface seen on the the Yanling Dao.  But they certainly give the blade added strength and a sense of authority.  The point of balance is 14 cm from the base of the guard (5.5 inches), and if one were to hold the saber properly and avoid choking up, that pushes the PoB another inch out.  With a total weight of 960 grams this is a sword that wants to chop and slice. Nor does it take much effort to generate some wonderful whistling sound effects when your cuts are properly lined up.

The forging of this blade is flawless and the medial ridges are well executed on both side of the blade.  The cutting edge is straight and true with no twisting.  The spine exhibits the exact same ratio of distal taper as the original being 7mm at the base, 5mm halfway down the blade and 4 mm at the tip.  However, in an attempt to restore the blades original profile LK’s version pushes the medial ridge a little further down the blade. The end result is a more substantial blade than the original in its current state.  

My only complaint about the blade was that the final polish showed small scratches or imperfections near the tip and along the medial ridge in several places.  I am not entirely sure if this is because final polish was rushed, or if the sword had been rubbing inside the scabbard during transport.  The slender profile of the blade means that there is a little more play between the blade and the scabbard even when the hilt is firmly and securely set in the mouth of the scabbard.  This in no way effects the performance of the sword, and I quickly added to the collection of scratches as I did my test cutting and put the sword through its paces.  All of my swords are users.  Still, this may be something to be aware of if you are looking for a display piece.

The sword’s hilt is comfortable, and I didn’t have any problem with hot spots or hand fatigue after training with it.  Those who have never used Fangshi style mounts before might be surprised how comfortable a square hilt can be, and it is excellent for maintaining edge alignment.  All of the cast and blued steel fittings are substantially built. One can choke up on the metal fittings under the handguard without any rubbing or hot sports on the the Woyaodao.  That is not possible with the Yanling Dao, whose fittings (which are precise historical replicas) have ridges that ensure no one will be tempted to use an improper grip.

The green wrapping on the grip is tight and feels slightly abrasive. It showed no sign of wear or loosening after a few weeks of training. After looking at lots of pictured I suspect that LK Chen might have lengthened his hilt by half an inch or so, probably at the same time he added the lanyard hole and second point of mechanical connection not seen on the Vince Evans grip.  I suspect that this was a great design idea as it would keep the users hand away from the lanyard pin while at the same time brining the point of balance back slightly.  This might also be why the original’s POB is slightly further out than LK’s reproduction.

The sword’s scabbard is very nicely executed.  The black “vegan leather” is a historically appropriate choice and compliments the vivid green hilt.  The cast steel fittings are heavy and with good attention to detail.  The sword itself fits tightly in the sheath and will not easily fall out.  Yet there is some play toward the tip.  The cup shaped handguard is substantial with a flattened oval profile.  Overall, LK Chen’s fittings take their design cues from those created by Tom and Evans without being direct copies of them.  As beautiful as the more detailed reproduction fittings on the Yanling Dao are, I think I personally prefer the elegant simplicity, and comfort, of those on the Woyao Dao.

This dao also presents modern Chinese martial artists with some interesting questions.  It is longer and heavier than the late 19th century oxail dao that most modern martial artists prefer.  While its certainly possible to do taolu with this sword, one can feel that this was not what it was designed for. If one is looking for a historical weapon that would easily slot into modern martial practice, the Yangling Dao with its shorter, broader, blade exceeds expectations.  I found the most rewarding activates with the Woyao dao were training the basic movements and cuts, as well as a little light test cutting.  But perhaps that is not surprising when one considers that this really is a weapon optimized for the battlefield rather than the training hall.  In that setting the forward point of balance, heavier cuts and greater reach are a real advantage.  Nor, when thinking about the length of this sword, should we forget that it was almost certainly intended to be used with a rattan shield. Period illustrations suggest that a few extra inches in length could be helpful when coming under, over or around the shield, especially as many of these movements presuppose that the left foot and shield arm will be forward. This was a fundamental constraint of Ming martial culture that modern practitioners tend to gloss over when contemplating the dao.  Likewise, it would have presented a challenge when thinking about how to integrate Japanese sword design, much of which presupposes a double handed grip, into a Chinese military context.

LK Chen’s Woyao Dao does not disappoint. Once again, he has given martial artists a sword that is excellent value for the money.  And once again, he has presented us with questions about how modern Chinese martial arts relate to the historical practices which they claim as their ancestors.  The Woyao Dao demands that we move away from nationalistic and narrowly focused narratives of martial development. Instead, we need a richer understanding of how regional forces and widely dispersed communities of common interest gave rise to the weapons and practices that we see both today and in the earliest documented Chinese martial arts.